Richard Furman is arguably the most important figure in early Baptist life in America and unquestionably the most important foundational figure in South Carolina Baptist life. Another well-known contemporary and important leader in his own right, W.B. Johnson, said that when Furman spoke on an issue, “he settled it.”
Furman was sought after as a speaker on many various occasions. One such occasion was on July 4, 1802, when he was asked by the American Revolution Society to deliver a speech entitled “America’s Deliverance and Duty.” Furman gave the lecture in the pulpit of First Baptist Church of Charleston and hoped that “his feeble endeavors” would “promote the cause of Liberty and Religion.”
Furman was a faithful patriot during the Revolutionary War. Soon after his ordination to the ministry at 18, Furman became a catalyst in the Carolina backcountry to win people over to the patriot cause. He was so successful at his task that Lord Cornwallis put a bounty of 1,000 pounds on his head. As a result of the pressure that this placed on Furman, he was forced to flee the state until the end of the war in 1782. Soon thereafter, he was called to the pastorate of First Baptist.
Furman’s efforts in the Revolution were legendary and even brought him recognition from future presidents like James Monroe. Those same efforts also made him a prime choice for various speaking engagements on the subject throughout his life. His speech delivered on July 4, 1802, serves as a call to acknowledge “the merciful interpositions of the Deity” and “the obligations we are brought under.”
The “American revolution was effected,” Furman argues, “by the special agency of God.”
He credited God for the victory in the war in four ways. First, the patriots were fighting for a just cause. The British monarch was treating the colonies unjustly, and “God is the patron of those who are engaged in the cause of justice.” Second, God’s favor was seen in the valiant way that the Christian colonists entered the contest and fought, even though it was opposed to their nature. They would have never fought “unless they could clearly discern that it might be justified in the sight of God.”
Third, the providence of God is seen in the circumstances of the victory. The unity of the colonists, the “blunders” of the British, the friendly aid of the French, and the “preservation of the life of General Washington” were all ways that God’s providence was evident. Finally, and most profoundly, was the establishment of the United States, with its original intent as “an asylum for religion and liberty.”
Some people today may contest Furman’s interpretation of the divine providence of God in the founding of America. However, his call to duty still resonates. We must seek the good of everyone, guard against prejudice, and maintain goodwill for all mankind.
Surely Furman was sincere in his desire to “secure the blessing” of the Lord; however, it must not go unnoticed that much of the population of America at that time was enslaved and did not know this blessing. Richard Furman himself was a slaveholder and would later present the definitive statement on the right of Southerners to own slaves. It is baffling that someone could speak so clearly about freedom and justice, and yet so blatantly withhold it from others.
While we celebrate our forefathers’ accomplishments in freedom, and rightfully so, we must also admit their clear and blatant sinful blindness. Let us pursue the freedom of which they so eloquently spoke, but also sadly failed at obtaining — freedom and justice for all.